CINCINNATI -- Nearly two decades ago eighth blackbird flew into Cincinnati.
The contemporary chamber music ensemble, six players trained at the Oberlin Conservatory in northern Ohio, came to the University of Cincinnati as an ensemble-in-residence at the College-Conservatory of Music. Thanks to a three-year stay in Cincinnati, they return with some frequency, and they’re back on Tuesday for a concert at CCM’s Corbett Auditorium, presented by Chamber Music Cincinnati.
Today eighth blackbird is known around the world for its cutting-edge performances and recordings that have earned three Grammy Awards. Using percussion, piano, clarinet, cello, violin/viola and flute, the septet is described as combining the finesse of a string quartet with the energy of a rock band and the audacity of a storefront theater company.
The group’s name derives from a stanza in Wallace Stevens’ 1917 poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” referencing “noble accents” and “inescapable rhythms” — musical features audiences experience when the group makes music.
Fond Memories of CCM
The group became professional musicians from 1997 to 2000 at CCM, and they’re quick with recollections and praise. Percussionist Matthew Duvall, one of the founders, said the residency was the group's first “opportunity to operate full time as an ensemble in the business.”
They were given space to rehearse in the unused Wilson Auditorium at the opposite end of campus from CCM. (UC demolished Wilson in December 2013.)
“Being sort of sequestered in that old theater, there were very few distractions,” Duvall remembered. “We could rehearse like crazy.”
The residency enabled eighth blackbird to accept opportunities to perform in different places, he said. “They made it possible for us to do the work we needed to accomplish our professional aspirations.”
Several CCM faculty members helped with coaching and contacts. James Tocco paved the way for them to come to CCM, and violinist Henry Meyer, a member of the legendary LaSalle Quartet, tutored them in being professional musicians. CCM percussionist Allan Otte also was influential. Duvall credits CCM as “one of the premiere patrons of our ensemble. It was very much an incubator for us.”
The group still rehearses as much as three hours daily. Duvall repeats to young musicians today a significant lesson from Meyer: “Play for nonprofessionals who don’t know what to expect of your music. They will tell you what they want to hear, and you will have to figure out how to accomplish that.”
A Lasting Love for Skyline Chili and Graeter's
In the 15 years since the residency in Cincinnati, eighth blackbird has risen to the top of the contemporary chamber music world. They recently spent a week in Poland at the Wratislavia Cantans Festival, and they’re in the midst of a nine-month rehearsal residency at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, their hometown. There, they practice in an MCA gallery where the public can watch and ask questions.
They tour frequently, especially to favorite cities, including Cincinnati. They remember the Queen City before its current food-and-beer renaissance, so they gravitated to longtime standbys such as Skyline Chili and Graeter’s Ice Cream when back for two appearances with the MusicNOW Festival. But several blackbirds call themselves foodies and beer snobs, and they’re eager to sample Cincinnati’s thriving restaurant and brewing scene.
After hearing about Sundry & Vice, the craft cocktail bar in Over-the-Rhine, they marked it down as a place to check out. They vividly recollect Jungle Jim’s, the unusual Fairfield grocery store with food items from around the world. “It’s the only store of its kind I’ve ever found,” Duvall said. “It was our goal to go in and come out with things we had never encountered. And we always did.”
Untraditional Chamber Music
Those adventurous, eclectic tastes are reflected in eighth blackbird’s music. Their concerts allow audiences to encounter unusual contemporary music the group has commissioned. One such work played Tuesday will be Bryce Dessner’s “Murder Ballades,” a fresh and surprisingly upbeat take on a macabre genre of folk music in which grisly details of homicides are recounted through song. Dessner, a Cincinnati-born composer, guitarist for alternative rock band The National and organizer of MusicNOW, has worked with eighth blackbird for several years.
“It’s all instrumental, no text, and very folksy in its inspiration with some really fun melodies," Duvall said. "It’s something we enjoy playing.”
The concert also will feature Steve Reich’s 1967 “Piano Phase,” adapted for two toy pianos (to be raffled off post-concert). Parts of a newly commissioned work, "Hand Eye" by the composer collective Sleeping Giant, will be previewed, too. The Cincinnati audience will hear Timo Andres’s “Checkered Shade” and Ted Hearne’s “By-By Huey.”
The full set of seven pieces is scheduled for a January premiere in New York City at Carnegie Hall’s chamber music venue, Zankel Hall, supplemented with video, sound and light.
“We have a long relationship with Cincinnati,” Duvall said. “It’s a place that’s very important to us. Our visits are very sentimental. We’re thrilled that Chamber Music Cincinnati was interested in bringing us back!”
8 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 29
College-Conservatory of Music, University of Cincinnati, Corbett Auditorium